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Highest NY court to weigh free speech defense in online impersonation to mock scholars

New York's highest court on Tuesday will consider whether to overturn convictions in the Internet impersonation case of a man who argues that mocking scholars in an academic debate about the Dead Sea Scrolls was protected by the First Amendment.

Raphael Golb, an attorney and writer, was convicted of identity theft and other charges for disguising his identity in email messages and blog posts from 2006 to 2009 to discredit detractors of his father, a University of Chicago professor, in a dispute over the scrolls' origins. The more than 2,000-year-old documents, found in the 1940s in what is now Israel, contain the earliest known versions of portions of the Hebrew Bible.

Many scholars, including New York University Judaic studies chairman Lawrence Schiffman, say the texts were assembled by a sect known as the Essenes. Others — including Norman Golb, a University of Chicago historian and Golb's father — believe the writings were the work of a range of Jewish groups and communities, gathered from libraries in Jerusalem and hidden in caves near Qumran to protect them during a Roman invasion in about 70 A.D.

Golb's lawyer argues that the trial judge's jury instructions failed to protect his client's First Amendment rights and led to his convictions "precisely because his online impersonations called attention to, condemned and mocked alleged wrongdoing on the part of the Scroll monopolists and exhibitors."

A midlevel court threw out one conviction but affirmed 29 others, concluding the intended harm to scholars fell within the definition of injury and wasn't protected free speech. Golb was sentenced to six months in jail and five years' probation, but has remained free on bail during appeals. Other convictions included criminal impersonation, aggravated harassment, forgery and unauthorized use of a computer.

In their brief to the Court of Appeals, Manhattan prosecutors cited Golb's "relentless impersonation and harassment," sending emails under aliases to museum administrators, academics and reporters, and eventually impersonating his father's critics online. He used a New York University computer to create an email account in Schiffman's name to send alleged confessions by Schiffman of plagiarizing Professor Norman Golb's work years earlier.

Golb, a literature scholar and real estate lawyer with a Harvard Ph.D. and an NYU law degree, acknowledged during his trial that he wrote the messages. But, he said he never intended for anyone to believe Schiffman actually sent them, calling them "satire, irony, parody."

A Court of Appeals ruling is expected next month.

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